The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Saturday, February 14, 2004
 

Fox, the FCC and Monsanto: the liberal trifecta that never was. Was it?


It was way back on August 18 that I had a little fun with the suit brought by Fox News [1] against Al Franken, on account of his Lying Liars book.

Had my attention not been riveted to the Hutton Inquiry, then just getting into its stride, the Fox-Franken case might have drawn me towards another piece of Fox litigation, New World Communications of Tampa v Akre.

Cliff Notes version: Jane Akre and husband Steve Wilson were reporters on WTVT-13 Tampa who, back in 1997, researched a story on the contamination of milk with bovine growth hormone. WTVT, a Fox owned and operated (O & O) station, was initially pleased with the story, and even ran paid adverts on other stations for Akre and Wilson's four part series.

Then lawyers acting for Monsanto - who make BGH - sent a letter to the chairman of Fox News deriding the research and asking Fox to review the situation.

The series was canned; and then so were Akre and Wilson. They sued under the Florida whistleblowers law; won at trial; and saw the trial verdict overturned on appeal. And - quite against the normal rule in litigation in US jurisdictions - they were ordered to pay the Fox company's costs.

The appeal was decided in February 2003: I have not yet managed to establish what the current stay of play might be.

Akre and Wilson have a site on which the documentation can be found. It seems that a motion was filed on the costs issue; but I cannot see anywhere that even that matter has yet been resolved.

The Court of Appeal decision (PDF) was arrived at on the basis of a technicality, which leads us to the third of the headlined trio, Michael 'Sonny Boy' Powell's FCC, and what amounts to a sort of open sesame to a corner of broadcast regulation to which the Jackson tit is irrelevant: news distortion rules.

The expression is entirely a new one on me; and, considering the sheer volume of online material discussing the distortion of news, broadcast and other, it seems amazing to me that the expression ranks only 15 items on Google (excluding dupes).

The point raise by the Akre case was that these rules were established by 'caselaw' in various rulings made by the FCC, rather than imposed by regulations adopted [2] by the Commission.

Failure by a broadcaster to comply with the rules cannot be made the subject of enforcement proceedings by the FCC, but can be taken into account in considering the renewal of the broadcaster's licence.

Is the fact that the news distortion rules are of such limited effect - has any station actually failed to obtain renewal of its licence because of them? - that means they are so little discussed? Do Americans think that any sort of obligation to broadcast news which is not false or distorted should form part of the the FCC's armoury?

The elephant in the room here is not Al Franken (this time) but the Hutton-whipped BBC and its sorry excuse for a management. There was a certain smack of Salem about the Schadenfreude in some sections of the American journalistic profession (one or two cases noted here) at the condign castigation of notoriously lax British practice.

The BBC's regulation regime - as everything else - is subject to alteration in the upcoming negotiations for the renewal of its Charter, expiring in 2006.

The FCC's news distortion rules seem to be fairly narrowly drawn, to cover only the most blatant cases. The idea - espoused by Lord Hutton - that a broadcaster should be accountable for failure to meet the much stricter standard of accuracy of news output - which existing regulation deals with only tangentially [3] - is naturally one that must appeal to a government which currently has its foot on the BBC's neck, pour encourager les autres.

(The absurdity of accuracy as a concept applicable to news is one aspect of the Hutton Report that I hope to get onto.)

On the Akre case, I've made no attempt to go into detail, given that this piece is basically a Ripley's affair, and the general lack of relevant materials beyond the stuff on the journos' site.

Perhaps the wardrobe malfunction will be of some use if the focus it's shone on the FCC can be widened to cover this murky area.

  1. A Disinfopedia piece on Fox News.

  2. The key word in the whistleblowers' statute, according to the court.

  3. Currently, UK broadcasters other than the BBC are regulated by Ofcom. The regulations applied are inherited from its predecessor regulator, the BSC, and are far from comprehensive.

MORE

A book of essays, Into the Buzzsaw: Leading Journalists Expose the Myth of a Free Press, includes a piece by Jane Akre on the WTVT case.


STILL MORE

The reason I got onto the Akre and Wilson case in the first place was the quote from the WTVT manager, David Boyland:
We paid $3 billion for these television stations. We will decide what the news is. The news is what we tell you it is.

I reckon that's particularly fair and balanced of him, in the circumstances...


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